After three years of delays, Maine is just about ready to begin licensing recreational marijuana businesses.

The Office of Marijuana Policy, which will oversee roll out of the adult-use market, will begin taking testing lab applications on Nov. 18, and start accepting cultivation, manufacturing and retail license applications on Dec. 5.

“The Office of Marijuana Policy has worked … to develop and institute regulations that we hope will serve as a model of how to properly regulate marijuana for the rest of the country,” Erik Gundersen, director of the office, said on Monday. “The goal has been to put forth the best rules and regulations possible.”

The state’s nascent marijuana industry has been waiting since the 2016 legalization vote to go operational. The three other states that legalized recreational marijuana that year – California, Massachusetts and Nevada – rolled out there regulatory structures, but Maine stood still.

The start of state licensing will represent a symbolic victory of sorts for some, but in towns that are limiting the number of local marijuana businesses, Dec. 5 marks the start of an all-out sprint.

State law requires local approval before the Office of Marijuana Policy will issue any final marijuana licenses.

In first-come, first-served towns, local marijuana entrepreneurs will have to obtain their provisional state license before they can apply for one of the few local licenses that are up for grabs.

In these towns, a delay in obtaining a provisional state license could derail the applicant’s hopes of setting up shop where they have bought a warehouse, or leased retail space from a marijuana-friendly landlord.

Other municipalities have set no limit on the number of marijuana licenses they will issue, or plan, like Portland, to hand out a limited number of retail licenses based on a scoring system.

Anyone who wants to apply for one of the state marijuana business licenses, or work in a cannabis business, must get a state-issued identification card. The cards require a criminal background check. Applications are now available on the Office of Marijuana Policy website.

Mark Barnett, the owner of Higher Grounds, a CBD coffee shop on Wharf Street in Portland, also serves as a spokesman for the Maine Craft Cannabis Association. He is planning to apply for a marijuana license and says he does not have any issues with the conditions, such as the criminal background check, that are going to be imposed by the states.

The office will use the information gathered in the background checks to decide if an applicant or their employees satisfy the character requirements written into the state law. For example, certain felony convictions would rule an applicant out.

Barnett said most people in the industry believe that marijuana should be a fully legalized substance because it is safer than alcohol or nicotine.

“It hasn’t sat well with anyone that a relatively benign substance is being treated as a public health threat,” he said. “Everyone wishes this could have been a more free and open situation.”

But Barnett said the background checks and ID cards are not catching anyone by surprise since the state has been working on regulations for months.

“It’s a very difficult industry, and it’s being made doubly difficult with all these regulations,” Barnett said. “I would have preferred a lighter-touch approach.”

The state’s new adult-use rules don’t go into effect until December, but the Office of Marijuana Policy wanted to start helping prospective licensees prepare to enter the emerging industry now so it would have more time to respond to applicants’ questions.

The office began the staggered rollout of program applications Monday because that is when it completed final adoption of its adult-use program rules. These rules create the regulatory framework for marijuana licensing, compliance and enforcement.

The state projects it will begin collecting its first recreational marijuana sales taxes in March 2020.

From legalization to legal sales, Maine is inching toward the slowest rollout of adult-use sales in the United States so far. Economists say the three-year wait for stores to open will have cost Maine more than $82 million in taxes and 6,100 industry jobs.

After the legislative rewrites, gubernatorial vetoes and contractual snafus, regulators are saying Maine will record its first adult-use sales on March 15, or 1,223 days after voters narrowly approved full-scale legalization at the polls.

Maine’s recreational cannabis market will top $158 million in sales its first year and almost $252 million in its second, according to research from New Frontier Data, a national marijuana analytics consulting firm.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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